Mark Loproto
Posted on February 8, 2019

The History of Hawaiian Leis

The History of Hawaiian Leis

Luau staff prepare to greet guests with flower leis at the historic Aloha Tower Marketplace.
Ka Moana Luau’s guests always receive a warm welcome and a lei.

by Mark L., February 8, 2019

If you attend a Hawaiian luau you’ll most likely be presented with a lei when you arrive. You might think it’s a kitschy gimmick to drive home the luau’s authenticity. However, the history of Hawaiian leis is deeply rooted in island culture and remains an important tradition to this day.

The lei may appear to be a simple garland made from bits and pieces of tropical flora, but symbolically the lei is an offering of friendship, love, and celebration. Thus, it’s customary to never refuse one and to keep it on while you’re in the company of those who offered it to you.

The materials leis are made from vary and hold symbolic meanings. The occasion and who’s crafting the lei will also influence what they’re made of and how they are designed.

Although the history of Hawaiian leis can be traced back to the earliest settlers of the islands, these traditions have shifted and evolved. To truly understand the importance of the lei in today’s Hawaiian culture, you must know the history. Let’s take a look at the history of the Hawaiian lei, starting with early Polynesian voyagers.

The History of the Hawaiian Lei: Origins

Open-ended maile lei
Open-ended maile lei

Many of Hawaii’s customs can be traced to other islands in Polynesia. Hawaii was first settled by Polynesian people who navigated across the Pacific Ocean. It’s believed that early Tahitian voyagers were responsible for bringing the tradition of the lei with them.

Early leis were composed of flowers, shells, feathers, animal bones, teeth, leaves, and seeds. They were crafted in specific ways depending on their purpose. For example, the open-ended maile lei has long held a special significance. It was originally only worn by kings and other important men. Today, the maile lei is reserved for bridegrooms.

In the age of the Hawaiian nobility, the lei was used to signify who belonged to the royal house. Different types of lei were also used to honor specific gods.

Like any custom, those surrounding the lei were bound to evolve. When the Hawaiian Islands became a tourism capital, there was a shift in focus for the customary floral garland.

Welcoming Visitors with Lei

By the 1900s, Hawaiians started to adopt new traditions revolving around the lei. This was influenced by the influx of travelers to the once–isolated country. The lei soon became a symbol of Hawaiian hospitality, becoming an iconic greeting in the early days of tourism. Traditional floral leis were once presented to arriving visitors at the airport or port of entry as part of the warm Hawaiian welcome.

Today, Hawaii sees almost 10 million visitors in a year, and most tourists will likely only receive a lei when arriving at a luau. However, leis are a common souvenir and can be found in any gift shop or ABC store on the islands. Artificial leis are commonly found on the mainland, having been integrated into celebrations like weddings, graduations, and birthday parties.

The Makings of an Authentic Lei

Typical leis are made from locally–grown flowers and leaves, including tuberose, orchids, plumerias, pikake flowers, and maile or ti leaves. While you’ll find leis made from other materials including shells, kukui nuts, and sometimes even candy, the flower lei is the type that people are most familiar with.

As if the variety of materials wasn’t enough to differentiate lei types, there are also several common ways that a lei can be created. These include hili, made with one material; kui, made through stitching; haku, made from a three-ply braid; and humu, a lei sewn to a backing.

Hawaiian Lei Etiquette

Statue of historical figure Duke Kahanamoku draped in Hawaiian leis.
The statue of Duke Kahanamoku draped in leis

When it comes to the authentic lei, there are a few customs to know. While these aren’t exactly “rules,” following the etiquette of the lei shows respect for the old traditions of the Hawaiian Islands.

Since the lei symbolizes friendship and affection, one should never be refused. When you do receive one—and chances are high that you will—it’s customary to wear it draped over the shoulders with equal parts hanging in the front and back. It’s considered impolite to remove your lei while you’re in the giver’s presence. If you are allergic to the lei, politely explain the situation.

When you are ready to part with your lei, it’s rude to just throw it in the trash. Instead, they should be returned to nature, either by removing the flowers and scattering them in the ocean, burying them in the ground, or hanging them from a tree. Unfortunately, fresh flower leis begin to wilt within a day or two. Seashell and kukui nut leis last forever, though, and they make excellent souvenirs.

Leis at a Hawaiian Luaus

There are many customs and traditions at a luau, but the Hawaiian lei is almost always a part of the celebration. You’ll likely be presented with one as soon as you arrive, and you may also have an opportunity to learn to make your own. Many luaus offer a variety of traditional activities and lei-making is a common activity.  You get to see the process of making a lei and get to create a fresh flower lei bracelet for yourself.

Woman presents the camera with shell leis, presenting luau guests with leis has been practiced throughout history

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